The Plain Truth About Karen Dalton: An Interview with Joe Loop

Karen Dalton’s reputation has benefitted more from the re-kindled interest in folk music over the last few years than any other artist from the original folk revival of the early ’60s. The two albums released in her lifetime to little notice or acclaim — In My Own Time and It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best — have been re-issued and widely praised by the music press, her name suddenly on the tongue of such figures as Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, as well as a new generation of artists, including Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, who speak of her as a seminal influence.

Dalton’s stoical, majestic, devastating take on folk-blues is finally earning her the place she’s always deserved among the great voices in popular music — her legend spurred on by stories of an abject, drug-addicted later life that may have been avoided had recognition come sooner.

Now, Dalton’s old friend Joe Loop has released live tapes of Karen playing at his Boulder, Colorado, folk club, the Attic. Under the title Cotton Eyed Joe, these live recordings rank among her best work. It was a time when seemingly every young musician was picking up an acoustic guitar and exploring the roots of American music, and the Attic was one of their favored stops on the route from East to West. Some of them — David Crosby, Tim Hardin, John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) — would find great fame, while countless others would sink further into obscurity than Karen Dalton ever did.

Loop gives PopMatters a contemporary perspective on that much-mythologized era and movement, as well as a friend’s view of an artist so reclusive that many of the fundamental details of her life are unknown or have been misreported. Loop also gives his opinion on how so singular a talent could be ignored for so long by critics, the public, and everyone but the loyal core of family, friends, and fellow musicians who did their best to give her support until her death in 1993.

How long did you remain in touch with Karen Dalton. When was the last time you saw her?

The last time I saw her was probably about the mid-’70s sometime. I did talk to her in the early ’90s, I think a few months before she died. I don’t know exactly how long before. She was… I guess you’ve read all the stuff about her dying homeless on the streets of New York?


Well, I’d like to correct that, that isn’t true. She was actually staying in a house owned by Peter Walker — a guitar player who lives up in Woodstock — and he also has a place in New York. She was staying at his house — had been for quite some time — she was there when I got a hold of her. And, she told me, matter-of-factly, when I called her that she was “staying in this cabin this guy got me to croak in.” Those were her words. We chatted and all that. Her son Lee was with her, taking care of her. And, actually, when she passed away, Peter Walker was with her in the room, and he didn’t realize she’d gone for a while. Anyway, that was a little bit of a different story than the one you usually hear…

Yeah, I never heard about that at all. I think some of his, Peter Walker’s, recordings have been reissued as well.

Yeah, his career has taken off quite a bit recently, and he’s kind of managing Karen’s estate for her children. I didn’t know him back then, but we’ve talked on the phone recently — really nice guy. From that scene, he was the guy who was solid enough that everybody gave him their stuff keep.

Do you know how long she was staying in his house?

I don’t know really. They were old friends. She was up there in Woodstock, and then she got sick. She died of AIDS…

Yeah, that’s one detail most reports have managed to get right…Going back to the time you knew her. Was it ’62 when the Attic closed down?

Well, actually, ’63. Right around the beginning of ’63, so it was only open for about two years. It closed when I came home to Indiana for Christmas. It was kind of a sad situation. My partner decided to do some remodeling that we had in the works, but we weren’t financially set to do it yet. We were supposed to be waiting ’til spring to do it, and he ended up getting it closed down because the renovations didn’t meet some of the building codes, and we didn’t have the money to change it. I think it was the fire department that officially did it. I was not very happy with him, to say the least. That’s part of the reason I didn’t go back there for a few months. So I stayed in Indiana, then I moved to New York. Karen had moved back there and I stayed a summer there with her and her husband Richard Tucker for a while. And then we all moved back to Boulder later on in the summer. And that’s when the home recordings that haven’t come out yet were made…

I liked that sentence from your liner notes to the Attic tapes about New York being “hot” and “noisy” back in ’63 — it’s still like that.

Yeah, it still is in the summer — hot and noisy. You have to go down to the river or something to tune your guitar — it’s so noisy everywhere else.

It’s interesting to read that from you though, because, usually — coming into the mid-’60s — it seems like a place that everyone wanted to be. What were your feelings about the counter-culture as it developed over the rest of the decade?

Well, you know, I thought it was a great thing. I went out to Berkeley in ’65. It was just kind of peaking at that time. It was a great scene, but it was just starting to get ruined by the large influx of people. The media latched onto it, and everything blew up.

I read an account from one of the Diggers [a radical theater/social revolutionary group] in San Francisco, and he said around ’65/’66 is when everyone left and tried to form rural communes, to stay independent, keep up with what they were doing…

Yeah, when I got there in ’65, some of the older — Diggers and other people — were starting to get out. They saw the writing on the wall, and when Scott McKenzie put out that Come-to-San-Fransisco-with-flowers-in-your-hair song, that kind of sealed the fate of San Francisco and Berkeley.

Hah, I always figured that song was probably even more annoying in 1967 than it is now… But a minute ago you mentioned some home recordings of Karen?

Well, I’m having some problems with them — I better not talk about it right now. The recordings were done at Karen’s house. They’re being re-mastered as we speak by Stefan Bismuth of Megaphone Records out of France.

It’s interesting how a lot of the time, with older American records, their caretakers end up being in Germany or France or some place like that.

Yeah, I know. Those seem to be the people that care the most. Like, it was him, Stefan, who originally got the UK rights to her first record [It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best], and worked hard on putting the word out about her music. He’s the one who called me. I told him about the French film crews that had filmed her. He somehow found that footage and put it on the DVD with the UK issue of that record. And he wanted to know if I had any photographs. I mentioned the Attic recordings to him, and when he was visiting the States, I played them for him, and he, of course, loved them. That’s how they ended up being released by Megaphone in Europe, and Delmore Recordings here in the States. And I’m hoping Stefan is going to put out those home recordings that he’s working on right now… I have to really admire the guy for the energy he’s put into Karen’s music. In fact, I don’t think In My Own Time would have been re-released if it hadn’t been for Stefan getting her name going again. And that second record is wonderful. I remember I was so happy at the time that she got to do a real, produced record. Of course, there’s something about the Attic tapes that’s so honest and straightforward…

My favorite from those tapes is a song called “Every Time I Think of Freedom”. But I’ve never heard of it before, and can’t find any information about the song on the Net, aside from Karen’s rendition of it.

That’s always been one of my favorites, too, and I’d never heard the song before either. That’s what she did, she’d take some old blues song or spiritual you’d never heard before, and just make it devastating. “Darlin’ Corey” was another one. It was all in her voice. And it worked in harmonies too. She would sing a lot with Richard Tucker. It’s too bad all the recordings of them have been lost, because their two voices together were a whole different thing. It’s a real shame no one can hear that any more.

Richard Tucker’s not well known today. Was he real active on the folk circuit?

Yes, he was. He traveled around, played in various bands. He sang with Tim Hardin for a while when he first started out. Actually, he and Karen and Tim were all in a band together. Tim was going into acting — that was his plan — but Karen convinced him to make music his career. And I think it worked out pretty well — he wrote about twenty of the best songs I ever heard. Karen kept telling me about him when I was still in Colorado, and she asked me, if he came through town, would I put him up for a while. So he stayed with me and my wife for a bit. I had an old piano I managed to liberate from an abandoned farm-house, and tried to work out some of his first songs on that thing — he was just starting out with writing. It was soon after, he moved to L.A. and started really getting it together. Except for his heroin habit. That pretty much ruined everything. I used to argue with him about that, but it didn’t do much good…

You actually tried to talk him out of it?

Yeah, I was always a marijuana and LSD man myself. I thought psychedelics were a lot better for you than downers like heroin.

Well, I think the last 30, 40 years have proven your case, I would say.

Yeah, I’d say so.

Did that ever come up with Karen?

Well, most of the time I hung out with Karen, her choice was the same as mine — psychedelics and marijuana. She didn’t even drink very much. They talk about her being a bad drinker. But I’m not sure she ever drank that much. Unfortunately, though, she ended up getting into the hard stuff…

But that wasn’t until the ’70s, or even the ’80s?

Yeah, probably mid-’70s at least. She wasn’t doing it the whole time I knew her.

Available information is a bit sketchy about Karen’s origins. Was she born and raised in Oklahoma?

Yeah, Enid, Oklahoma. They say half-Cherokee, which is what she would always say, but it isn’t quite the truth. She did have some Cherokee blood in her, but, according to her daughter, not enough to qualify for benefits.

Did she have a husband back in Enid before she was married to Richard Tucker?

Yeah, Don Dalton. He was Abby’s father. I think he was Lee’s father, too, but I’m not so sure about that. I just kind of assumed it.

Are those her only two children?

Yeah, Abby and Lee. And the stories about her losing her children — it’s true that she did lose custody of Lee sometime before Abby was born, back in Oklahoma. I don’t know why exactly, that was before I knew her. But she had lost custody of him, and her mother raised him. Matter-of-fact, she told me that recording of “Red Are the Flowers”, she said she always sang that when she started thinking of her son Lee.

Whoa, yeah, that isn’t hard to believe, because it sounds more personal than just an anti-war song when she sings it…

It certainly does. And, now you know, there’s a good reason for that.

Did her daughter go with her on trips to New York?

Sometimes she did, and sometimes she’d stay with her dad. I think she ended up living with her dad pretty much after ’68 or so. He taught college in Illinois, and that’s where she still is.

So she was raised half her childhood by Karen, half by her father?

Yeah, she must have been somewhere around ten when she moved to Illinois. Something like that…

And when did Lee start seeing Karen again?

Well, when he got old enough to be on his own, he and Karen got together, and they were living together most of the time after that, actually. I don’t know how much of that time Abby might have spent with them…

Is it safe to say Karen had a fairly depressive side to her?

I don’t know. I don’t remember Karen being a depressive person. You know, what was going on in this world was enough to depress anybody. Also, of course, I know she was frustrated by her lack of recognition and success. And it was hard for her to do much about that. All those things added up. And I think what was happening to our planet affected her more than most people. So it wasn’t just her personal life, and, anyway, I don’t think she was more depressed than just about anybody else who was living in poverty, broke and hungry most of the time. It’s not a real happy existence for a lot of people.

So you think it was more those facts of her life, and not just her lack of success as a musician, that probably led to her drug dependency?

She had a lot of success as a musician. She just didn’t have any commercial success. She got probably $20,000 for that second record [In My Own Time]. That’s not a lot of money, especially for someone who’d been broke for such a long time. I’m sure that didn’t last a long time at all. And the only other income she had was from singing in coffee houses, and stuff like that…

Why do you think she didn’t make it in a more commercial way, like Tim Hardin, or someone like that?

I think there were a couple reasons. One, she didn’t go up there and say “Hey, look at me.” You know, she got up and sang, and that was it. She didn’t have much of an act at all; she didn’t get up there and try to entertain like most people did. Her music was, of course, some kind of communication, but she didn’t get up there and talk very much or anything like that. She just sang. And she had quite a bullshit detector. She didn’t care much for bullshit and bullshitters, and that’s most of what you get. That’s pretty much the world she had to live in, and she just wasn’t commercially oriented at all. She was real laid back, and shy, actually. She was a really strong woman, but in a lot of ways, she was shy. It was just a foreign thing to her to go out there and say, “Hey, I’m great.”

It sounds ignorant, I suppose, but it’s hard for me to imagine that people didn’t just want to hear Karen, everywhere.

Well, she’d do things like… I know she got fired from one gig for sitting and tuning too long. She wasn’t gonna play if it wasn’t in tune, but sometimes it takes a while to tune a twelve-string guitar. And back then there were lines of people waiting to come and play for nothing, just passing the hat, you know? So there was a lot of competition…

Is there any one musician you can think of who came through the Attic — or just from those days — who you feel is most deserving of the same kind of re-discovery that’s happened with Karen in recent years?

Oh, for sure: Judy Roderick, who died about the same time as Karen. She had several records out. Her first record was on Columbia, called Ain’t Nothin but the Blues. Columbia didn’t reissue it for some unknown reason, but it’s an amazing record. The one that’s available on CD, Woman Blue, is a fine record, but not as good as Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues. She also did a rock record called 60 Million Buffalo that was tremendous. She’s so different from Karen, you can’t really compare them at all. About the only thing they had in common was that Judy learned “Blues on the Ceiling” from Karen, and her version of the song is on that first record. There’s also some stuff she recorded with David Crosby when he was younger that’s been bootlegged on the web.

I’m a huge fan of David Crosby, but from reading various things, you get the impression that in the early ’60s he was kind of looked on as a twerp by some of the other folk musicians. Is there anything to that?

Yeah, yeah he was. When he first came to the Attic, you know, not everybody there was dirt-poor, but most of us were hitchhiking, or driving cars to get around. He flew into Denver on a jet-plane. He was already kind of a jet-setter. But he really was a nice guy, and a good singer. He was young, and maybe a bit twerpy, though, yeah. He listened to stuff like Bud & Travis, the Journeymen, those early groups — not your hippest renditions of folk music — kind of citified, very white versions. But going through the Attic changed him quite a bit, because he met Karen, and heard about Fred Neil, and then went to New York after that. Also, there was this guy around the Attic at that time who should have been heard more. His name was Ed O’Riley, and he’d developed this three-finger picking style that you can hear in the Byrds, actually. Crosby was more into strumming, and jazzier kinds of arrangements up to that time, but after being exposed to Ed and Karen, and going to New York for awhile, I’d say it turned his head around.

I’ve never heard of Ed O’Riley at all.

Well you wouldn’t have, because he never did anything after that. And I really don’t know what happened to him, to tell the truth. I tried Googling him, but didn’t come up with anything. I did get in touch with another guy I knew from my days in Berkeley, though, named Don Garrett. He’s been doing some street-singing, and I guess some of it’s been recorded recently. I think it’s a fine outlet, street-singing. Richard Tucker did a lot of that. He and Karen would sometimes go down to Central Park and different places, and they’d make more money doing that than at the real gigs.

Have you heard any of the kids these days who’ve been influenced by Karen Dalton, like Joanna Newsom or Devendra Banhart?

Well, I’ve heard some of their music, and I like it. But I did hear one girl — she’s singing with a band named Curio, out of maybe Cincinnatti or someplace like that — and she sounds like she’s trying to sound like Karen Dalton — not just influenced, but she’s trying as hard as she can to sound like her. And it’s interesting, but it’s not Karen…